On July 19, the Yamagata Shinkansen debuted a luxury ashiya (foot bath) service. A ticket from Tokyo to Yamagata City, in Tohoku Prefecture, costs around ¥11,000, but 15 minutes in the foot bath car is extra. If Matsuo Basho, Japan’s most well-known poet, were to retrace his 156-day-long trek through Tohoku in 1689 — described in his masterwork “Oku no Hosomichi” (“The Narrow Road to the Deep North”) — he probably wouldn’t spring for the shinkansen, much less the foot bath. He’d likely opt for the comparatively spartan Seishun 18 (seishun jūhachi kippu, literally, the youthful 18 ticket), which gets you five nonconsecutive days of travel on all local and rapid Japan Railway trains for ¥11,850. This five-day ticket lets you bend “your steps in whatever direction” you wish — to quote Basho in “Utatsu Kiko” (“The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel”).
The Seishun 18 is a cheap alternative to more opulent (and expedient) means of transport but requires some patient planning and a high tolerance for complicated train timetables. However, making good time flies not only in the face of the Seishun 18 but also the spirit of Basho himself.
In the opening of “Narrow Road,” the poet writes: “When spring came and there was mist in the air, I thought of crossing the barrier of Shirakawa into Oku. I seemed to be possessed by the spirits of wanderlust, and they all but deprived me of my senses.” By the time I reach Shirakawa and disembark for lunch, spring is long gone and the air is heavy and humid.
When Basho passed through here in 1689 a massive sekisho (barrier station or gate) on the southern edge of Shirakawa marked the entrance to Mutsu Province (now modern-day Fukushima Prefecture) and served as the Tokugawa checkpoint for monitoring and controlling trade and traffic in and out of the northern regions. Only ruins remain of the Shirakawa sekisho today. Basho notes that it wasn’t until he reached this area that his “mind was able to gain a certain balance and composure.”
Back on the Tohoku Main Line with a stomach full of soba (buckwheat noodles), the succession of trundling local trains seems more of an activity unto itself rather than a mere means of transportation; the stack of books I brought with me to fend off hours of anticipated boredom remain untouched as I stare out the window at the passing landscape of rice paddies and rivers, mountains and towns.
The next morning, at the Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum in Yamagata City, a chatty museum employee points out Yamadera on a large map of Basho’s path through Tohoku. Dates accompany each location. “Basho was here a week ago. Today he’s at Mount Haguro,” he says.
Having just missed the bard himself, I cross the Tachiya River and begin my ascent of the 1,015 stone steps leading up to Hojusan Risshakuji Temple. Around the 500th step a stone slab displays the following haiku:
In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.
Basho composed the poem during his visit. Around me the cicadas continue their cry.
Risshakuji Temple was founded in Yamadera in 860 by the monk Ennin (posthumously named Jikaku Daishi) after he returned from a nine-year journey to Tang, China. He wanted to expand the Tendai sect’s temples and replicate the ascetic mountain temples he saw in China.
Nearing the top of the stairs I turn to see Jikaku Daishi’s grave, marked by the oft-photographed Nokyodo — a small structure built on a precipice above a cave where his remains were placed after his death in 864. I watch two workmen in lime green jumpsuits make their way around the adjacent Kaisando Hall to repair power lines installed sometime since the advent of alternating current.
The train leaving Yamadera heads east, taking me through long, ear-popping tunnels and across steep gorges before turning north at Sendai. Passengers sprawl out across their seats and examine one another with an unhurried gaze as the setting sun cuts through the train car’s windows.
That evening, at the Sekinoichi-shuzou Brewery in Ichinoseki City, I meet with Masaaki Toki. The facilities here represent the largest collection of Taisho Era (1912-26) buildings in Tohoku, which have been designated as cultural assets. Toki proudly points out the fresh wood on the queen post trusses, added by specialists from Tohoku University to save buildings from collapse after the 3/11 earthquake.
“In Iwate we are open to new techniques though we also treasure the older techniques of our ancestors,” Mr. Toki tells me. In the gift shop I notice bottles of sake and beer that have jet-black labels emblazoned with a golden circle around a simple swallow-tailed temple facade — a representation of the Konjikido (aka the Golden Hall), and the symbol of nearby Hiraizumi Town, one of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The next morning I get up early to beat the crowds visiting Chusonji Temple, another spiritual site founded by Ennin. Here I find Konjikido, the Golden Hall, completed in 1124 and under which four generations of the Oshu Fujiwara clan are enshrined.
Upon seeing Konjikido, Basho praised an outer frame for sparing the Golden Hall from the “all-devouring grass,” asserting the hall would survive to be a monument for at least 1,000 years. If my math is right and the temple can stand for another 110 years Basho will be a prophet and a poet.
Hiraizumi received it’s World Heritage designation in 2011, but it glory days are far behind it: It’s downfall came two years after Fujiwara no Hidehira, third ruler of Mutsu Province, sheltered the warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune from his own brother, Yoritomo, in 1187, in the aftermath of the Genpei Wars. Yoshitsune was soon ferreted out by his brother and following the loss of a battle was forced to commit suicide on June 15, 1189. Yoritomo eventually took control of Mutsu Province, and established Japan’s first shogunate in Kamakura.
I get back on my rented mamachari (literally, mom’s bicycle) and ride to the nearby ruins of Motsuji Temple.
A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.
It seems little has changed in the 325 years since Basho wrote that when he visited Hiraizumi in 1689 for the 500th anniversary of Yoshitsune’s death.
Simply appreciating the life and works of the itinerant poet is not enough when you follow Basho’s road north. An informed reading of “Oku no Hosomichi” means understanding all that has happened in Tohoku before and since 1689. I have plenty to mull over on my afternoon train ride south to Matsushima, in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the Nihon Sankei (three scenic views of Japan) according to the 17th-century scholar Hayashi Gaho. Basho himself claimed that Matsushima is “the most beautiful spot in the whole country of Japan.” I would be hard pressed to disagree, though nowadays Matsushima has all the trappings of seaside tourist towns around the world: ubiquitous sightseeing cruises, a shabby aquarium and endless eateries hawking the local specialties (in this case, oysters and beef tongue).
My inn has an outdoor onsen from which I watch the blue of the sky deepen; most of the bay itself is obscured by a barrier of tall summer grass. Indistinct voices and laughter drift over from the women’s bath and compete with the cicadas. It’s easy to feel, as Basho did, “in a world totally different from the one I’m accustomed.”
The town of Matsushima is suited to aimless wandering, and the next day I begin at Zuiganji Temple, originally a Tendai temple established in 829 by — you guessed it — Ennin, which Date Masamune converted it to a Rinzai (Zen) temple eight centuries later. My cruise around the bay ends at the small island of Ojima, where Basho watched the moonrise in 1689 and where a monument was erected to commemorate his visit 100 years later. The views here are the best I find.
Sometime after lunch I reluctantly bend my steps back to the small JR station and receive the final stamp on my Seishun 18 — the one that will take me home to Tokyo. I spend some time watching the Tohoku landscape outside the train’s window, but as darkness falls I finally reach for the stack of books in my own travel-worn satchel.
Getting there: Tohoku and Miyagi Prefecture can be reached by local trains using Seishun 18 tickets, which are valid on a seasonal basis and can be purchased at most JR stations.